Listen Below The Story

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Holding 1:1s with your direct reports is a crucial task for people managers. These meetings provide the opportunity to build the relationship, alignment and engagement.

In a true partnership, creative solutions are designed, roadblocks are overcome, opportunities envisioned and the working alliance is examined and adjusted to better meet both people’s needs.

I think the most important skill that people managers have to fine tune, to realize the potential benefits of 1:1s, is listening, and specifically listening below the story.

What I mean by this is not getting caught up in the stories that direct reports tell in these settings. People managers want to help their direct reports and in doing so often over-index on buying into the story and/or giving advice. Pay attention to this. How often do you get swept up in the stories that direct reports tell and/or give advice?

In your next 1:1, practice listening to what is going on below the story. Pay attention to your direct reports ‘character’ in the story. We often get directed to minor characters as the drama unfolds. Listen for “so and so did this/didn’t do that”, but don’t get caught up in that, rather pivot back to the person in front of you. They are the main character. And most importantly they are the ‘character’ that you can ‘direct’ in the story. And you direct by staying curious and asking open questions. You lead, by following.

Try asking – “What’s this really about?” It’s not about so and so, who did or didn’t do this or that. It’s about the person in front of you. Your direct report. It’s about what they are doing or not doing that matters most. What can they try differently next time to get a different outcome? What behavior of theirs can they adjust? How can they look at this situation from a different perspective to get closer to the truth? What can they learn here about themselves and the dynamics of their relationships?

What’s this really about? It’s about cutting through the details, to listen below the story to get at the truth for your direct report. It is direct communication. Powerful and evocative. Try rehearsing it in advance of your next 1:1. Play around with your tone and delivery, the way an actor would run lines. Most importantly be curious and caring in equal measures.

Then in the 1:1 let your direct report run with a story, of so and so, who did or didn’t do this or that, and find your moment to ask, What’s this really about? People often stop in their tracks and ask, What do you mean? So ask it again, What’s this really about? And be quiet. If your direct report doesn’t work out that it’s about them, then follow up with something like, “I’m wondering what you could try next time to ensure that Matt completes all his tickets in the sprint?”

Hopefully that gets your direct report into a solution focused mindset, encourages them to reflect on their role in the situation and generate some ideas. Try asking, What else could you do? This will generate more options to consider. If they get stuck then try brainstorming options together. You throw one out there, “Ask Matt to tell you if there is a bottleneck.” Then they take a turn, “Message Matt on slack to ask what meeting he could drop this week to free up some time to execute?” Go back and forth until you have plenty to choose from and then ask your direct report to decide on what options make the most sense to them. Resist the urge to decide on an option that you would take. You want your direct report to exit the 1:1 energized and committed to their choice of action, not yours.

Listening below the surface takes practice. Set up a cue to remind yourself to listen this way in your 1:1’s. Try adding a note to your calendar. Maybe – What’s this really about?

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